Tribute to a teacher

MILLERSTOWN – Classroom 102 at Greenwood Middle High School will never be the same. The halls that surround that room will be missing a familiar clicking of heels coming down the corridor.

Special education teacher and sixth grade assistant teacher Carrie Hackenberger died tragically Feb. 11 as the result of an automobile accident near her home in Juniata County.

The 2003 Juniata High School graduate was on her way home from Greenwood when her vehicle crossed in the path of another vehicle at Academia Road on Route 35 in Beale Township, according to State Police at Lewistown. A total of three vehicles were involved.

The school has not been the same-even after roughly a month has passed – said staff members. Her closest colleagues, other sixth grade teachers, said the day after the incident they dedicated class time to making cards and notes for Hackenberger’s family. The notes were curled and formed into angel wings which were given to Hackenberger’s mother. The center of the “angel” read “If we listen closely we can hear the rustle of angel wings … and know you are still with us.”

Students were given the opportunity to talk with counselors from various sources as part of the school’s crises management plan.

Many just wanted to write down their thoughts to the family instead.

Sandra Derr, Mary Lou Blair, and Joan Byers reflected on their friend Hackenberger and her work as a teacher.

“I guess what I want to make known is that she easily made connections with students. She pushed them to do their best and didn’t allow students to use their disability as an excuse. She helped them find ways to be successful, and they respected her for that,” Blair said.

Derr recalled the day of Feb. 11 well. She had been out of the school for the day and the area was expecting a large snow storm in another day or two. Anticipating a day off due to snow, Hackenberger texted Derr saying, “I may not see you at all this week,” and posted a sad face.

That was the last time Derr heard from her colleague.

Derr pats a photo of Hackenberger on her desk. She notes it has not been easy coming to work and not seeing the high-energy 28-year-old who loved horses and barrel racing.

“You could hear her coming down the hall,” Byers said of Hackenberger’s notable walk and her high heels.

Byers said students best put their thoughts of Hackenberger on paper for the sake of a tribute page in the upcoming yearbook. She pulled out a handful of notes written in pencil by sixth graders.

Those heels were memorable for one student.

“We will miss your heels clanking down the hall and your hair swaying,” the child wrote.

Another said, “Miss H was a great teacher … always caring about us. She would never give up on us until we got it.”

Byers pointed out another note that read, “When you ask how to spell beautiful, it is spelled Carrie.”

Hackenberger’s energetic spirit was noticeable immediately upon her interview with the school five years ago said principal Nick J. Guarente.

“It was apparent that she had an internal drive … ambitious … the qualities you look for in an educator.”

She jumped right into her role as a special education teacher and brought creativity into the classroom. The week of her death she was using YouTube music clips to help students identify metaphors, similes and personification.

“That was Carrie,” Derr said fondly.

The teachers reminisced as they looked over a photo collage of Hackenberger – one photo showed her standing on the horse’s saddle – that was connected to the horse.

“Oh my. I hadn’t noticed that before,” Derr chuckled.

She noted how Hackenberger was busy and always “on the go.”

“She played floor hockey at the Lion’s Den; she would play flag football with the guys. She even picked up a second job at the Red Zone.”

The teachers mentioned a shin fracture Hackenberger had received playing that floor hockey last year. An independent young woman, she refused to let anyone help her.

“She tied her purse to her crutches,” Byers said.

While they can laugh about her taste in clothing – notoriously wearing black pants and a blouse with “bling,” – they admit there will be grieving for a time to come.

Students say little to the teachers or staff anymore, they said, but now and then a teacher will notice a student mentioning Hackenberger’s name.

“I have had a few students raise their hands and ask to go to Miss Hackenberger’s room,” Derr said, “and they catch themselves and say, ‘Oh, wait-‘”

Derr then assures them it’s OK. They are allowed to say her name – even by mistake.

On Feb. 12, the day after her death, there were a lot of hugs given and received by students, Derr said.

Other students realized they had maybe given the special education teacher a tough time. They now regret that, Derr said.

Hackenberger’s personality was not to let the small stuff get to her. She just kept going.

Her classroom is now occupied by a substitute teacher. Classes still go on. Her name still appears in places around the room. A banner with her favorite saying still hangs above the blackboard. It reads, “Never settle for less than your best.”

A bulletin board behind her desk has various cutouts of badgers a student had collected and colored for her. Byers pointed out that Hackenberger kept every single one.

In time the classroom will change. The halls may echo again with another set of heels. But the legacy Hackenberger left will remain with those who appreciated her most.

Said Derr, “She had a lot of energy. She carried it everywhere. It was contagious, and I think we all caught it.”